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As psychedelic-assisted therapy grows, so does interest from a new group: chaplains

Dried Psilocybe mushrooms on a glass plate.
James MacDonald/Bloomberg
Getty Images
Dried Psilocybe mushrooms on a glass plate.

Research on the therapeutic use of psychedelics is underway at several universities, and data continues to accumulate on how they may help with conditions from PTSD to depression. Many states and localities across the country are considering legislation. Some, like OregonandColorado, have already passed regulatory models, which involve licensing facilitators to administer these drugs. And there's increasing interest in that work from a group of professionals who already guide people through life's deep and difficult times: chaplains.

Chaplains are religious professionals who work in non-religious settings — hospitals, schools, battlefields. Although they're trained and often ordained in a particular tradition, they help people of any faith — or none at all — wrestle with spiritual issues, and connect with a sense of meaning.

"We are with people in deep moments of grief, deep moments of pain, deep moments of life transition," explains Caroline Peacock, an Episcopal priest who serves as director of spiritual health at Emory University's Winship Cancer Institute. "And we know how to be with people in these very, very hard moments."

Peacock recently drew upon this training as part of a clinical trial using psilocybin, the compound in so-called "magic mushrooms," at Emory University's Winship Cancer Institute. Their results will be published next year. In the study, chaplains worked alongside mental health practitioners to administer the psychedelic drug to terminal cancer patients. And after the treatment, they provided what's called integration — using their experience navigating shifts in worldview to help patients make sense of the experience.

After participating in the trial, Peacock convened a Psychedelic Care Network within the Chaplaincy think tank group Transforming Chaplaincy, which over 150 fellow chaplains have joined. The conversation is growing within the field — both the Association of Professional Chaplains and the Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains held workshops on psychedelic-assisted therapy at their most recent annual conferences, and panels and webinars have been held in many forums, as chaplains explore this topic.

And while some chaplains are exploring psychedelic-assisted therapy because of their deep well of experience providing a non-judgmental presence to help make sense of life's difficult moments, many are also drawn to it because people taking these drugs often report what's described as a mystical experience.

Anthony Bossis is a clinical psychologist at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, who has spent 15 years conducting psilocybin trials with patients facing advanced cancer. And he says patients taking the medication report a sense of awe and wonder, of interconnection, of transcendence. Moreover, he says, the research shows that the spiritual dimension of psychedelic treatment seems to be part of what makes the therapy therapeutic.

"The findings have shown already that the mystical experience has been a predictor, or a mediator, in terms of better outcomes," explains Bossis. "And we are seeing rapid and sustained reductions in depression, anxiety, hopelessness, fear of death, in people who do have an advanced illness who have this experience."

Given how frequently people report these spiritual encounters on psychedelics, it's not surprising that some religious practices have been built around them. Ayahuasca ceremonies in South America, peyote rituals in Mexico and the Southwest. But more and more, religions that don't have these traditions are saying they do have a container for these experiences.

Jaime Clark-Soles is a New Testament scholar, and directs the Baptist House of Studies at Southern Methodist University. She says that from Genesis to Revelation, scripture shows examples of faithful believers experiencing extraordinary states of consciousness, using fasting, prayer, and retreats, to change their everyday world, and step into a different sort of reality.

"To go to that place where you can stand in the presence of God. You know, 'be still and know that I am God,'" quotes Clark-Soles.

Clark-Soles took part in a clinical trial giving psilocybin to religious professionals at Johns Hopkins University, and says she experienced the presence of God fully and profoundly. Now, she's enrolled in a facilitator training program for psychedelic-assisted therapy, and hopes to bring awareness of the practice to others in the faith community.

She's heard pushback from some in that community, saying that the spiritual dimension of these drugs is just drugs... not God. But she says the moment when she accepted Jesus Christ, which nobody in her tradition would question, was also shaped by a context that affected her perceptions.

"I was away, I was in a retreat setting," says Clark-Soles. "I went outside, I was in nature, had a direct encounter with God. And here I am a seminary professor teaching, teaching Bible, right?"

Science can't tell us if any religious experience is real. The metrics we have are what people report on what they feel, and how their lives have been changed. As Clark-Soles says, "what fruits are born of it."

And people's lives have been changed by psychedelics, often in profound ways. Dr. Anthony Bossis has seen it throughout his research.

"For a person to have the experience, or the insight, that 'I'm not just my body, I'm not just my cancer' — that's been a gift for people at the end of life," says Bossis. "To identify not only with a failing body, which will soon stop working, but that possibly there's something more remarkable at work in who we are as humans."

Religion has long offered a context, a language, for engaging with things in this world that are beyond everyday comprehension. Things we can't see the beginning or end of. How to live, and forgive, and make meaning. And with psychedelics, chaplains are hoping to bring their experience with these old questions into a new conversation — to help those facing the end of life, or those just trying to figure out how to live it.

This story was reported with support from The Ferriss – UC Berkeley Psychedelic Journalism Fellowship

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deena Prichep